Standup paddleboarding rides a rising tide in Vancouver

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Endurance athlete Jen Segger was one of the first people in the province to take up standup paddleboarding. As a world-class adventure racer, she has run, hiked, climbed, swam, kayaked, and cycled through some of the toughest terrain on the globe.

Over the phone from her home in Squamish, Segger recalls spotting her first standup paddleboard several years ago while preparing for a race on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. When she stopped by a shop in California to pick up a prone board, she noticed that the vendor also had a standup paddleboard. “I did it and I was hooked,” she tells the Georgia Straight. “I came back and my partner, Norm Hann, and I went about buying boards. At the time, there wasn’t any in Canada, so we had to go down to the States.”

Since then, Hann has become a top paddleboard racer, winning the B.C. men’s championship last year in the 14-foot division. Segger says that she uses a standup paddleboard for cross training, and the couple also enjoys going on paddleboarding expeditions.

“It’s such an easy way to access the water,” she states. “That’s why we’re seeing people of all ages doing it—including people with knee conditions who don’t want to be shoved into a kayak and [left] feeling uncomfortable. Step on the board, and it’s just such a beautiful, easy motion for the body.”

Hann, who appears on the cover of this issue of the Georgia Straight, ended the last B.C. racing season on the right note by winning the Board the Fjord race, which began in Deep Cove. Bob Putnam, co-owner and general manager of Deep Cove Outdoors, tells the Straight by phone that he videotaped the race, following Hann and his closest competitor, whom he describes as a “very fit, very strong guy” from Seattle.

“Norm had a very good technique, and was very efficient, with limited body movement,” Putnam says. “The other guy, he was moving way over the place. He was using way more energy than he needed to. But because he was so strong and fit, he was doing well.”

This is the paradox of standup paddleboarding, according to Putnam. He points out that because it’s a confluence of surfing and a paddle sport, like kayaking or canoeing, people rely on different skills to succeed. The paddlers often have the best arm technique to get the craft moving, whereas those from a surfing culture, notably the Australians and New Zealanders, have outstanding balance and are comfortable standing on top of the board.

“I’ve been trying to lure the paddlers into cross-country skiing,” Putnam adds, “because both give you a really good workout in your trunk, in your core, your abdominals, your lats, and, surprisingly for standup paddleboarding, your legs, too. After a race, my legs are usually fatigued.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that standup paddleboarding is already on its way to becoming a phenomenally popular sport. Putnam says that his retail outlet sells inflatable standup paddleboards, which are easier to store in apartments. “They take you less than five minutes to pump up,” he says. “They almost perform as well as a real board, and they have that benefit of being transportable and compactible.”

Steve Herkel, manager of Pacific Boarder, says over the phone from his West 4th Avenue store that six years ago, customers only bought a handful of boards. In recent years, there has been an expansion in the number of brands, and it’s become routine for his staff to sell more than 100 boards per year.

Herkel says that in addition to the inflatable boards, there are high-performance racers, which are usually narrower and flatter. The touring boards are a little wider, more stable, and better suited for longer trips on flat water.

“You can take a couple of wet bags, put them on the front and strap them down, and go for a nice distance paddle up Indian Arm,” he says, noting that this enhances stability.

Last year, nearly 150 people participated in his store’s Boardstock event, which involved hopping on a standup paddleboard at the Jericho Sailing Centre and crossing the water to Quayside Marina in Yaletown. The event ended with a celebration at the Yaletown Brewing Company.

Expect to see even more paddleboarders on the water this year. Last month, the Vancouver park board approved a three-year operating agreement with Vancouver Water Adventures to provide standup paddleboard rentals at Kitsilano Beach.

The company’s co-owner, Clayton Watson, tells the Straight by phone that 2012 was an “explosion year” for the sport at his Granville Island location. He says that more celebrities—including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Gerard Butler, and Will Smith—are being photographed while standup paddleboarding, enhancing the sport’s appeal.

“Just three or four years ago, the SUP [standup paddleboard] market didn’t really have the money to advertise,” Watson says. “It didn’t have any big stars who were doing it.”

Mike Cotter, general manager of the Jericho Sailing Centre, says in a phone interview with the Straight from his office that this will be the sixth year of standup paddleboarding at Jericho Beach. In each of the past five years, he says, the number of participants has “virtually doubled”.

Unlike some water sports, he says there’s a “low learning curve” as a person gets comfortable standing on a paddleboard. And he maintains that this creates risks for some beginners who venture farther out into English Bay.

“They haven’t taken the time to acquaint themselves with this marine playground,” Cotter says. “They’re not aware of the shipping lanes—or the dangers that large freighters coming through those lanes can present until it’s too late.”

Cotter points out that Transport Canada doesn’t require standup paddleboarders close to shore to wear a personal-flotation device or attach themselves to their small craft with a safety leash. He vehemently disagrees with that policy, citing the 2011 drowning death of a standup paddleboarder in Washington state who wasn’t wearing a personal-flotation device or a leash. Outside of the “surf zone”, personal flotation devices are required, but Cotter says the regulation isn’t always followed.

“Many a time I’ve seen people without these PFDs or these safety leashes paddle right up to freighters,” Cotter states. “You’re not supposed to do that. That far out, you should have a leash and a PFD on.”

Cotter says he was raising his concerns about the regulations with Transport Canada in January 2012, before he even learned of the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base. He has since led the local campaign to save it, noting that its loss magnifies the risk for users of standup paddleboards and other recreational craft in English Bay.

Along with Cotter, retired Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue personnel and Vancouver marine police and fire officials have also predicted that the closure of the base will eventually result in loss of life. Meanwhile, the Jericho Sailing Centre Association will offer free two-hour seminars next month to provide the public with basic water-safety information, including the location of shipping lanes. (For more information, see the Jericho Sailing Centre website.)

Cotter emphasizes that in a strictly legal sense, it’s up to members of the public, and not the Coast Guard, to ensure that they are knowledgeable about the risks before leaving the shore.

“Whenever you can get people to play on the water, it’s fantastic,” Cotter adds, “but it should be done with a basic safety awareness.”

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Joanne Dumont
Norm instructed me and very true to his ethics , I did learn all about safety first and his teaching techniques are amazing..... I love the sport thanks to him... He is a great role model and exceptional athlete...


Joanne Dumont from Sudbury Ontario
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Regula Wipf
Norm - you still are the greatest. How about introducing Stand up Paddling to the Sultanate of Oman? You are welcome any time - balmy 25 degrees in winter.
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